Composition Part 2

Surely melody is the most important thing right?

And yet do we too often start with a structure or a genre?

Do we get students to think about a style or a structure or a form and not necessarily think about a melody?

This is something I have been looking at with Year 11 this week. Melody is the key thing in a composition and all too often it can be neglected. In the pursuit of a cinematic style, students can create the most wonderful atmosphere and yet fail to create a strong melody. Or with Ternary Form pieces, students create a solid harmonic framework, but the melody lacks any real shape/style (even where it does fit closely with the harmony).

What I want for my students is for them to learn to create strong, clear, powerful and ultimately, memorable melodies. I want them to work out what kind of sound they want and think about what instrument they want to work with and then I want them to start to create a melody.

But how on earth do you go about this. How do you get students to write the perfect melody!

Those two words almost don’t really go together do they – Perfect & Melody. Is there such a thing as a perfect melody. I am not sure there is, but I guess that is down to the composer to work out.

So I ask my students to get ideas down. I ask them to pick a key, pick an instrument and then start to think about what their starting note will be. Then I ask them to think about what the next note will be. Will it be approached by step, or by leap and will it ascend or descend. Getting students to think about the step by step approach to melody encourages them to think about the notes they are choosing. They start to listen to the leap or step and consider whether this is the sound they want.

What I often find however is that melodies can become a meandering stream of notes with no real space and often no rests. Note values tend not to be all that varied and in many ways the melody is lacking any real character. And yet the shape is often there and they have thought through the ups & downs and considered the steps & leaps.

So the next stage is for students to consider the notes values and rhythms they have given to their melody. In thinking about the next note and then the next, they also need to think about how long they will spend on that note. When they go back to the melody, I encourage them to think about space, rests and even silence. I want them to take their meandering, albeit well-shaped, stream of notes and turn them into a rhythm that injects a sense of style. Would holding a note for 4 beats instead of 1 maybe make the melody more interesting, or would a triplet rhythm inject some excitement.

So let me just take you through this rambling:

  1. Pick a key, an instrument, a time signature and a starting note
  2. Put that note into the computer or down on paper.
  3. Now consider two things – are you going to go up/down and are you going to move by step/leap
  4. Now put in note 2.
  5. Repeat this process, adding notes that you feel flow on from the last. Consider leaps & steps and always think about the ups and downs.
  6. Now listen to your melody. Where is it lacking space? Does it need a rest? Are the note values imaginative enough or are they creating a meandering or repetitive sound?
  7. Start to alter the note values and ensure that the melody has more character through more interesting rhythms and maybe wider use of dotted notes & rests.
  8. Are there any intervals or leaps that are not working and do you now need to change them?
  9. Does the melody have a sense of Start, Middle & End – does it lend itself to the application of imperfect & perfect cadences?
  10. Listen through your melody and consider the journey it has been on. Can you sing it back and does it stick in your mind? Do you need to alter any note values or add any sense of motif to your melody – there is still time to change it.

The ultimate goal of this approach is to get students to think about the relationship of each note to its last. It is all about creating a melody that considers the direction of notes, their relationship to each other and the application of rhythm. I believe that we need to get away from thinking of melody as just an arch shape or a series of cells that combine and I believe we need to think about melody in terms of its raw materials – notes and note values. Creating a melody can either be a mechanical process or it can be an exploration of notes within a key. It doesn’t always work, but it is good, especially early on in the composition process, to get students to think about a melody in a creative way. Creativity can’t be taught, but it can be encouraged and I like students to try things out and grow a melody from a starting note rather than a starting structure.

Have a go, I will keep thinking, composition is never easy to teach!

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